The word ‘pseudo’ is a Greek word meaning false apparent or supposed but not real. When prefixed to the word archaeology the term pseudoarchaeology simply means false archaeology.
It can be false for a number of reasons. Firstly, the archaeological methodology may not be undertaken using accepted scientific methods. Secondly, the interpretation of the data or the material remains excavated may not be consistent with the usual practices of analysis. Thirdly, the artefacts ‘discovered’ could be fakes or the entire archaeological concept could be orchestrated as a hoax.
Pseudoarchaeology is sometimes called fantastic archaeology but by whatever name it is given it is best identified as pseudo-science dressed in archaeological garments. Any archaeological theory, excavation site, or published results of excavations that do not conform to accepted archaeological practices generally fall into the category of pseudoarchaeology.
A frequent motivation to engage in pseudoarchaeology is radical nationalism. Imperial ideologies of the recent past used the results of archaeology to advance their empires. Often it was considered necessary to fake the data in order to pursue a particular emphasis for the nation. Some nations thought that re-writing history via archaeology would benefit their political aims.
Other motivations to enter into this pseudo-science could be religious dogma, anthropological theory, or revisionist historical interpretation. Archaeology is often enthused by romantic myths and legends. If the real science of archaeology were to make a discovery that rendered the national tale as a proven myth then cultural history would be shaken. Some people feel that it is better to ‘rework’ the evidence than to alter fanciful history.
There is no serious rocket science to presenting archaeological forgeries. Any artefact that simply looks old and is somewhat obscure as to its identification can be presented to the public (and even academic professionals) and most will believe it if the presenter has some trappings of authority.
There are literally thousands of archaeological frauds, fakes, and hoaxes that would be termed pseudoarchaeology. Here are a few examples that reached to global deception.
- Piltdown Man fossils: These were the fabrication of a human skull and a chimp jawbone in an attempt to prove human evolution. Exposed as a fraud.
- The Cardiff Giant: Made by P T Barnum (of circus fame) and displayed as the original after the British Museum refused to release the one he said he had found.
- Stone Age Japanese tools: Numerous lithic tools were planted by Shinichi Fujimura so he could be the first man to discover ancient stone tools in Japan. Snapped by photographer planting the items.
- Dating of Human Skulls: University of Frankfurt professor made up the radiocarbon dates of human remains to suit his own theories about ‘primitive man’.
While the hoax of Piltdown Man lasted many decades the poor science that led to the presentation of Nebraska Man only lasted a few years. Henry Osborn, of the American Museum of Natural History, reported in 1922, that he had discovered a fossil tooth near Snake Brook in western Nebraska. Upon first analysis it was said that the molar appeared to have common characteristics of both human and ape. The tooth suddenly became known as Nebraska Man and the London Gazette published a sketch drawing of a stooped cave man walking through a desolate landscape with other Nebraska’s (mum and the children) in the background.
The drawings and the academic following were developed from just one single tooth. William Bryan, a researcher, vehemently opposed the conclusions citing that it was very poor science to draw conclusions of the whole from such an insignificant portion. The professional world criticised him harshly.
Five years after Nebraska Man had influenced so many professional scientists, more remains were found from the same site. Sadly for those hoodwinked academics it was proved beyond doubt that the tooth belonged to a pig. Drawings of Nebraska and his family were immediately withdrawn from evolutionary textbooks.
Respected archaeologists attempt to differentiate their research results from those reached by pseudoarchaeologists, by stressing their accepted methodologies used throughout the process, the peer evaluation process and review stages, and the general systematic and transparent approach to data recovery in the field. Yet, as long as archaeology is attractive to government ideologies or private conspiracies then pseudoarchaeology will continue to flourish.